21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Vampires Of Venice


What's the worst that could happen to a vampire?

You've got the stake through the heart problem or the tricky issue of dodging the sun. But what about the indignity of a vampire creeping up to his or her victim and finding out that they'd lost their teeth? The shame – having to scrabble around madly for a pair of false gnashers is as low as a vampire can get, particularly if they're floating Albert Steptoe style in a glass of fizzy solution. Toothless Vampire would never be able to hold his or her head up in public again.

That's the same sort of indignity that hovers around the Doctor Who story, The Vampires Of Venice, like a particularly smelly clove of garlic. Vampire stories are not new in Doctor Who. Two notable examples of this genre are the 1980 E-Space brooder State Of Decay and the 1989 wartime epic The Curse Of Fenric. Despite the limitations of the small screen, both stories succeed in terrorising kids, thanks to well-written scripts, strong acting and some excellent effects (especially the disintegrations of The Three Who Rule or Jean and Phyllis).

Reviewing all of these Doctor Who stories in order however, inevitably means that my expectations are always heightened when coming to a similar type of tale. So I expect The Vampires Of Venice to be as dramatic and scary as State Of Decay and The Curse Of Fenric. Which unfortunately it isn't. It's very well made and reasonably entertaining, but for scare scores, Vampires Of Venice goes low.

To be fair, there are some attempts at sending kids behind the sofa. There's the usual shorthand of sharp teeth and hissing. A higher body count than other stories this season, including luckless fish food, exploding sacrificial 'buy some time' lambs, and even a disintegrating mummy's boy. There's even an icky looking mummified corpse in a trunk. But the overall feeling I got from The Vampires Of Venice is that compared to past glories, it's more generic, by-the-book horror.

Doctor Who has always possessed that eerie, unnerving streak – the weird kind of surreal horror that can't be replicated, whether it's the unusual, off-kilter monsters, ordinary people getting possessed or the long list of grisly deaths. Even in the 21st century reboot of Doctor Who, the Russell T Davies years contains its fair share of horrible demises, possession and off-kilter monsters. Inexplicably, the terror factor plummeted down to the lower echelons for Matt Smith's first season – and I think a key reason for that is its lack of scary monsters. Sure, the Weeping Angels sequel nearly hits the mark, but beyond that, I'm struggling to think of any small example that belongs in the cobwebbed Hall Of Scary Fame. The Smilers do zilch. The Daleks are emasculated, dayglo laughing stocks. The Silurians are now a dysfunctional bunch of bickering wallies. To add to that, the eponymous Vampires of this tale are largely as scary as an episode of Moschops – but more on this in a little while.

Admittedly the initial premise of VIV is quite intriguing. The Doctor and Amy (now with dopey clot, Rory in tow) land in Venice, so that Amy and Rory can enjoy a quiet romantic break (after Amy previously thought that getting all hot and bothered with the Doctor was a good idea). However, they stumble across the machinations of one Signora Rosanna Calvierri, who's in charge of one of those finishing schools for young ladies.

In fact, there's very little evidence of the sort of poncy betterment that you'd expect to find in these establishments. The ladies don't walk around with dusty Rosemary Shrager cookbooks on their heads. They don't learn how to talk all posh like. And neither do they learn how to sip tea in the proper fashion (apparently, you're supposed to stick your little finger out while supping – and therefore making yourself look like a complete fool). Instead, the gals are more interested in learning the art of sticking teeth into necks, for they are in fact – gusp! Vampires!

It's an interesting set-up, and owes more than a little debt to those old 1970s horror movies starring the likes of Ingrid Pitt or Yutte Stensgaard. There are plenty of shots involving the female vampires sauntering around in nighties, but the problem is they don't look terrifying at all. Instead they look like they are queuing up to be in the Halloween issue photoshoot sessions of some outdated lad's mag relic like FHM or Maxim. Ditto Francesco, the son of Rosanna, and the successor to Battlefield's Mordred as Prissy Mummy's Boy Of The Year. Francesco may be a dab hand in a fight, but that still doesn't alter the fact that he's nowhere near as scary an opponent as Aukon or even Jean and Phyllis.

Matters get even fishier when it turns out that these vampires are actually creatures from a planet called Saturnyne. Turns out that they are actually aquatic beings but with handy perception filters that make them human in form – and hence the lack of reflection, see? While this is a fairly neat take on the traditional vampire story, adding that all-important sci-fi element, there's still lots to argue with this point. If I was to say to you that here's a Doctor Who story written by Toby Whithouse about an alien race taking humanoid form – well, you'd be hard pressed to work out where School Reunion ends and The Vampires Of Venice begins.

What's even more suspect is some of the plotting. For example, if Rosanna says that her big masterplan is to convert humans into what's known as 'Sisters Of The Water', why on Earth does she activate a handy gadget that will cause earthquakes and floods to rock Venice to its very core? Surely the Saturnyne creatures will perish in the process? Stupid all round really.

The Vampires Of Venice is enjoyable enough, but it feels like it should be so much more. The plotting, when looked at in detail, is sketchy at best, and the episode never feels as scary as it should. The overall concept of fish things masquerading as vampires fails to inspire. The other big grumble I have about The Vampires Of Venice is that this is where dopey Rory comes on board for a bit.

I've mentioned Rory a bit in The Eleventh Hour review, so apologies in advance for more Williams bashing. The idea of a third male companion isn't new – going way back, we've had Ian and Jamie. Come to think of it, since the 1970s, there's been a steady quota of ineffectual third wheel men. Harry, the dashing UNIT doctor actually turned out to have a tendency for putting his foot in it at regular intervals. Turlough revelled in his own cowardice. As for Adric – well, you know the story.

The real gripe I have with Rory is that his inadequate bumbling is magnified a thousandfold. Throughout the story, he's walking around with the perpetually worried face of a man who's misplaced his car keys, constantly flying in the face of the Doctor's derring-do suggestions and shuddering at the thought of attempting to thwart the bad guys and gals - “This whole thing is mental,” he trembles. “They're vampires, for God's sake!” Not only that, but he's constantly on the receiving end of withering put-downs from Amy. “Why did you make the sign of the cross, you numpty?” she scowls after Rory's nearly come to grief at the hands of Francesco. While he gets his reward with a full-on Amy tongue sandwich, it still feels like a pretty one-sided relationship given that all Amy seems to do is hector and yell at the spineless goon on a seemingly non-stop basis. I don't think that any self-respecting bloke would put up with being treated like a doormat, no matter how good the kisses.

And there's the rub – the Amy/Rory dynamic never really seems to change this season. So far, the impression I've got is that Rory seems to mope around and feel like sloppy seconds, whether Amy's championing her Raggedy Doctor or functioning as a brotherly spare part. There's been no real progression with Rory so far – while he admittedly has a bit of canny insight in this story about the Doctor's bravado (“It's not that you make people take risks – it's that you make them want to impress you”), to me, it feels like Rory's still stuck in his wimpy, self-pitying rut. The character of Rory will fortunately improve in the future, but many tales in his first season don't do his character justice at all.

Where The Vampires Of Venice does win out though is in its presentation. The episode contains some truly stunning visuals, with some lovely filming in Trogir, Croatia, which convincingly doubles for Venice. Given its Renaissance and Baroque architecture from the Venetian period, it's little wonder that Trogir was chosen as the location for this story (it would also be used as the location for the later Vincent And The Doctor) to make the most of an overseas shoot in the winter of 2009. This is director Jonny Campbell's first foray into Doctor Who, coming up with some artistic, lavish visuals. There's an unwritten rule at the Beeb that period dramas always look sumptuous, and The Vampires Of Venice is no exception, from the location filming through to the designs and the costumes.

Campbell's guest cast is pretty good too. The best of the lot is Helen McCrory as the sultry Rosanna. McCrory is probably better known as Mrs Malfoy in the Harry Potter films (in which she hovers behind a man who has the haircut of a 13-year-old girl), but she makes a good job of being the lead villainess here, adding a twisted nobility and icy detachment to the part. Lucian Msamati is also good as the brave Guido, adding strong support as a staunch ally of the Doctor's. The leads also do well, although again the stage belongs to Matt Smith, who not only provides a greater deal of swashbuckling heroism to his goofy alien persona, but adds a nice dose of humour – in particular, in the pre-credits teaser in which he pops out of Rory's giant cake.

Here and there, there are dashes of inspiration. The Vampires Of Venice is by no means a disaster, but it's a shame that it doesn't aspire to be more than a pretty runaround. It's easy to follow (even with yet another reference to The Crack), occasionally witty (The Doctor hushing Amy, Rory and Guido is a good moment) and it looks great on screen. But with more emphasis on scares and a much tighter, original plot, this could have been a real masterpiece.

So long and thanks for all the fish, I guess.

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